Overcoming An Epidemic: Opioids In Pennsylvania -- Episode 5: Families

Oct 22, 2019

Amy Mitchell pushes her grandson on a swing set. Mitchell lost her daughter, who had struggled to overcome an opioid use disorder.
Credit Anne Danahy / WPSU

Transcript

Anne Danahy (Narrator) – Much of the discussion on the opioid epidemic focuses on the people most affected: the ones who are abusing opioids. That makes sense because their lives have been swept up by addiction. But, their families shoulder the impact of the opioid epidemic too.

I’m Anne Danahy. This is “Overcoming an Epidemic: Opioids in Pennsylvania,” a WPSU podcast looking at what researchers, communities and government agencies are doing to try to treat and prevent opioid addiction.

[Doorway knocking]

AD – I’m dropping in to talk with “Erick,” and I’m greeted by a few of his grandchildren.

AD – Hello

Children – Hi

AD – Hi. How are you guys? Hi.

AD – He’s not babysitting for a day or a week. He’s raising the four grandchildren while his son is in prison.

Erick – Grandparents have been raising kids for a very long time. Because we’re the grandparents, we don’t go looking for help. Because we’re like, ‘These are our grandchildren. What else are we expected to do?’ But there is a need.

AD – Erick is his middle name. We’re not using his first or last name to protect his grandchildren’s privacy.

About 10 years ago, Erick’s son started going in and out of prison. He was selling opioids.

Erick – Not until later when I had the opportunity to read the police report, that I actually found out he had some in his system also. It became difficult as a parent to want to believe that your child is selling or using illegal drugs.

AD – At the time, the oldest two grandchildren, who are now teenagers, came to live with Erick. The two younger ones came later. But the goal was the same each time: stability for the grandchildren.

Erick – I’m a very hopeful person, and I believed that he would come out and do the right thing, take care of his kids. And I would go on and would live whatever life God had for me to live. But, unfortunately, it didn’t happen that way. It became a pattern, he was out for maybe eight months, nine, then he would end up going back in again.

AD – His son has now been in prison for about two years. Erick says he came to learn that heroin was involved.

AD – What was that like for you when you found out that it was heroin?

Erick – It was very painful and scary. I dropped to my knees and burst out in tears, because I figured this was going to be it. I would never see my son again. I haven’t been able find the strength this time around, because there have been so many times, to visit him in prison. The emotional ride that I deal with on a daily basis just by him being in prison, it’s a difficult, it’s a difficult task.

[music]

AD – To talk with Erick, you wouldn’t sense the weight of his job as a grandfather. He’s closing in on 60, and as he says, he’s known for smiling.

Three days after having back surgery, Erick got a phone call. This was about the 3-year-old grandchild. Children and Youth Services was at the mother’s home. The mother said if Erick didn’t come get the boy, he would be taken away.

Erick – Some people ask me, ‘Well, why did you take on a fourth child?’ Well, it’s a no-brainer, because I already have his two brothers and a sister.

AD – He says the 3-year-old and 6-year-old are his therapy and recovery from that surgery.

Erick – Each time I go back for a follow-up visit, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re great. What are you doing? Whatever it is you’re doing, you keep on doing it. I say it’s that 3-year-old that I got three days after I left out of here.

Erick and his wife knew each other in 7th grade. They were married in their early 20s and had a daughter and a son. They started a business together and were successful. But, she died of ovarian cancer about 13 years ago.

He says he hadn’t been responsible for all the day-to-day duties that come with children.

AD – You’re almost 59, and you’re essentially like a father for four kids. What is that like?

Erick – That’s exciting. I wouldn’t want to have it any other way considering the circumstances. It’s very challenging at times … Little things like cutting fingernails, going to doctors’ appointments, going to school events, staying up at night watching a sick child. Those things are very stressful at times.

AD – Like other grandparents raising their grandchildren, Erick says he misses getting to spoil them

Erick – It hurts my heart, because I want them to only see me as Pop-Pop.

AD – Erick’s son is expected to get out of prison this year. Erick says he and the older children sit down routinely and talk about what things will look like in the future. Having normalcy in their lives is important.

Erick – And, pretty much we’ve come to the conclusion that things will continue to go on as normal now. They’re high schoolers now, looking forward to going on to college, and that’s how we’re moving forward. God bless us if he comes home and contributes to their growth and their life, but unfortunately we’ve prepared ourselves to continue on.

[music]

AD – Erick is not alone. Grandparents and other extended family members are taking care of a growing number of children. In Pennsylvania, according to the state, 76,000 grandparents are taking care of nearly 84,000 grandchildren. The number has grown nationally too.

Pennsylvania has taken some steps to make it easier for what are known as “grandfamilies.”

In October 2018, Governor Tom Wolf signed legislation to support grandparents raising grandchildren. Wolf noted that many are having to step up because of the opioid crisis. One change is a temporary guardianship grandparents or other family members can have if the parents can’t take care of their children. Another change is setting up a Kinship Caregiver website and hotline. The idea is for kinship caregivers to get help navigating federal, state and local agencies.

[music]

AD – Amy Mitchell, who is in her early 60s, lost her own daughter and is raising her grandson, who’s almost 5.

Mitchell, who lives in the Bellefonte area in Centre County, started a Grandfamilies Support Group.

The group offers people affected by the opioid epidemic a chance to share information and resources, talk about what they’ve been through, and support each other. She says finances are a hurdle for many grandparents in this situation.

Mitchell and I are talking in a park, while her grandson plays.

AM – It’s just nice to be able to talk to people who are going through the same thing. And if they want to say ‘I’m really angry at my daughter or my son or whoever,’ none of us are going to criticize, none of us are going to judge. Other people who aren’t in the situation don’t get it. … They just can’t grasp the damage that does to your heart.”

AD – Mitchell says her daughter started using drugs in high school. She ended up trying different ones, including heroin.

AM – It was a struggle getting her through school because of the drugs. She’s been, she had been to several rehabilitation places. Detoxed, and came back home and just couldn’t stay away, I guess the drive for it is just too hard.

When she got pregnant, I thought, ‘Well, maybe this will be the thing that makes her turn her life around.’ And that wasn’t even enough I think.

AD – Mitchell says other people may not realize the impact addiction can have on the extended family.

AM – The addicts steal from you, they abuse you. It’s not pretty, and it’s not what you ever dreamed your life would be like. I’m going to counseling. I think most of the people in the group do. So you just try to deal with it and realize that you did the best you could and keep going for the little ones.

[Laughs]

AD – Her daughter was incarcerated when she was pregnant and was given a furlough to have the baby. Afterward, Mitchell dropped her daughter at the York County Prison, and took her 3-day-old grandson home with her.

AM – It was difficult. I remember telling her: I’m not going to raise your son. But here I am. I will do it. At least as long as I’m able. And he loves me and he’s a happy boy. And he’s not shy. As you can see.

[Laughs]

AD – Right, I think this is his second new friend of the day that he’s running up and down the slide with. Mitchell later adds. . .

AM – I wouldn’t give him up for the world. He’s my boy.

AD – Mitchell’s daughter died in 2018.

AM – I think the main thing is not to forget about the extended family when people are dealing with the opiate crisis or drug crisis, because it affects a lot of people … Brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents. And I think that’s overlooked at times.

[Music]

AD – Denise McCann is a mother and associate director of the Centre County Youth Service Bureau. Her oldest son, who’s 26, is in recovery.

DM – If I could tell everything that’s happened in the past six years, I don’t think people would believe some of the things. It’s like crazy. Even in spite of that, I do feel that we are probably one of the luckier ones in that we haven’t lost him. He’s still here, and he’s in recovery.

AD – She says there are others who have it much worse.

DM – So for two years now, he’s been OK. It’s hard. You don’t want to get too hopeful, because it can change at any minute. But we’re thinking, we’re hoping, we’re through the worst of it.

AD – McCann says she found out about her son using when one of his friends reached out to her through Facebook. Friends had formed a support group after another friend had died from an overdose.

DM – She probably saved his life.”

AD – Her son had been away at college, but she and her husband were starting to get an idea that something was going on. For example, they had gotten medical bills that were puzzling.

McCann says she and her husband addressed it right away — getting their son into treatment. But, that’s where another type of obstacle began.

DM – Two weeks or 30 days is typically what you get. That is not going to do anything.

Instead of going through treatment five, six or a dozen times, McCann wonders, why not just start with what would be more effective – like two or three months. Her son went to treatment five times.

DM – What other industry would be allowed to have those kinds of statistics and still be operating the same way. If you took your car to a mechanic, and you had to take it there five times to get your problem fixed, that person probably would not still be in business.”

AD – McCann says she was shocked at how difficult it is to navigate the system. She says she is someone who has resources and people to talk with.

But even so, if you know you want to get someone into treatment, there isn’t a central place to get information.

DM – If you want to go to Hawaii, you can go on to many websites and get many reviews about hotels and see which hotels you should avoid and which are better. But it’s very difficult to find that kind of information about treatment facilities. And then finding the ones that match your specific needs.

AD – And then when you do call, payment and insurance have to be figured out and whether the treatment facility has a bed available. McCann says, if there’s time between when someone asks for help and when they actually get into treatment, that could open the window to them using “one more time.

After treatment, a new round of challenges starts. Leaving rehab can be overwhelming, and not everyone has family there to support them as they try to make the transition back into society.

There are longer programs. McCann says she looked at one that was six months in Arizona, but it cost $75,000. Another treatment facility with a good reputation was also too expensive.

DM – They told me one month, but they wanted a check for $39,307 or something like that, and then we would have to go through our insurance to get reimbursed for that. I would love to have that for my child, right? But, I don’t. We don’t.

AD – McCann says it’s more than a financial drain on a family. It can mean a loss of security for younger children; or a parent can’t go to a child’s game; or a child can’t participate in something because their mother is in jail and their grandparent who’s raising them can’t afford it.

DM – There are multiple, multiple losses that I don’t think people realize.

AD – She says talking about it is part of reducing the stigma that still surrounds opioids.

DM – My hope would be, if I can prevent one kid, not even from dying, sure that, but even from starting down the path. If I can prevent one mother from experiencing what I’ve experienced. Or one brother or sibling from experiencing what I know my kids have from watching their brother go through this, then that’s what I would like to do.

[Music]

Speaker at a meeting: I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedules to be here tonight. We’re here to talk about the very important issue that is probably, I think, the biggest health crisis of my generation, one that affects the country, affects Pennsylvania and affects us.

AD – That was Centre County District Attorney Bernie Cantorna speaking at a Centre County HOPE meeting. HOPE stands for Heroin and Opioid Prevention & Education, and the initiative is focused on ending substance abuse and overdose deaths.

It was at a Centre County HOPE meeting that Veronica Gower and Katie Bittinger met. They have both lost children to opioids.

Veronica Gower – My son died on April 7, 2016. He was 30 years old and my only child. My life changed. My life ended that day. I feel like it because everything’s different.

I have my bad days and my even worse days. The good days are gone.

AD – Gower says like many people, she pictured the opioid epidemic as something that didn’t pertain to her.

VG – I was guilty of that. I pictured people curled up in a flophouse like you see on TV. And then my son became one of those people and then I learned that that’s not at all what it is.

AD – I’m talking with the two mothers together. Katie Bittinger says when she lost her daughter, Emily, she also lost people she thought were her friends.

KB – People that I thought would be right there by me, that would stand by me, that would be there to hold my hand and cry with me. There was a lot that said nothing, and sometimes you don’t know what to say. But they were the people that just kind of totally moved out of my life. But then there were people that I had never met, and people who I never thought would be that supportive that came into my life and replaced those people.

AD – Emily was 20 when she died of an overdose in 2013. Bittinger and her husband found her in her bed.

Bittinger says people need to show compassion and be prepared, regardless of the drug.

KB – It’s moving through the county and people need to be aware, they need to be vigilant, they need to speak up.

AD – One thing I heard from many of the people I talked with for this story is don’t judge and don’t be afraid to ask for help and support.

In the next episode, we’ll hear about increasing access to treatment in rural Pennsylvania.

“One of our family physicians here said he’d like the physicians he works with to all be able treat patients with opioid use disorder, and then we could look at this just like we look at patients with diabetes.”

This is “Overcoming an Epidemic: Opioids in Pennsylvania,” a production of WPSU. Reporters on the project include Emily Reddy, Min Xian and me, Anne Danahy. Cheraine Stanford and Frank Christopher edited the episodes. You can find more resources on the opioid crisis and what to do if you or a loved one need help at wpsu.org/opioids. For WPSU’s “Overcoming an Epidemic,” I’m Anne Danahy.